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Is it Important to be the Best at What You Do?

April 19th, 2006 by Bob Bly

No, says Paul Pearsall in his book ?The Last Self-Help Book You?ll Ever Need? (Basic Books, 2005).

?Settle for second (or third or sixth) best,” advises Dr. Pearsall. “In any life endeavor, there can be only one number one. Relax and enjoy being one of the thousands who fall short ? misery is the ultimate result when we link our sense of achievement to other people?s failures.?

What do you think? Should we settle for our lot in life? Or never give up trying to improve and do better?

And here’s more of Pearsall’s somewhat negative advice: “Stop trying to live up to your full potential. You probably don’t have much more potential than you’re showing right now, and striving for more will only cause disappointment.”


This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 19th, 2006 at 5:16 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

40 responses about “Is it Important to be the Best at What You Do?”

  1. Eric von Rothkirch said:

    We can always do better. The key question is, better relative to WHAT? If that relativity of achievement is what Pearsall is harping about, he may have a point. Perhaps it’s not the goals that are a problem, but the system of measurement?

    I’ve often satisfied problem areas by simply changing my metric to something that provided more useful feedback.

  2. Krishna Avva said:

    I agree that you don’t have to be #1, but you should always be trying to improve yourself. Being second (or third or sixth) best is ok, if the pool is large enough. The goal should always be to do your best and placement will fall out where ever it may, unless you come up on the bottom. Then you need to try something new, that you can have some success in. Having an income in the top 3 % of this country places you in some pretty good company and a fairly comfortable living, but that doesn’t mean you are #1.

    My 2 cents.

  3. AdSense Niche Guy said:

    I don’t think that you have to be “best”, but you definitely have to be WAY ABOVE average. The truth is that ‘average’ is so low in many instances that being way above isn’t all that hard.

  4. Jim Logan said:

    It sounds like feel good rubbish to me. There’s nothing wrong with being best, people rarely remember second place, and starting with the belief finishing last is okay is a recipe for certain and ongoing failure.

    Winning isn’t the only thing, but it’s a tremendous motivator in life. There’s no greater feeling in the world than to give an endeavor your most and realize you’ve exceed a previous best.

    If you eliminate failure as an outcome, there is almost noting you can’t achieve. Your worst moment is nothing but a momentary setback.

  5. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Seems to me that Mr. Pearsall has a reasonable point. Most of us will never be Number One at what we do – if only because – in most areas (except athletics) – there’s no scorekeeper. America is a rich country with vast opportunities where being number 20,012 is enough to guarantee you a perfectly prosperous and fulfilled life where you keep trying to be the best y-o-u can be.

    I totally disagree with him when it comes to potential. I don’t think most of us tap even 50% of what we have.

    (Great question, by the way, Bob.)

  6. Steve Slaunwhite said:

    If I took Paul’s advice I would be (to quote Jermaine Evans) tiptoeing through life, only to arrive safely at my grave.

    What’s the point? You have to risk dissappointment — even court it — if you want to accomplish some interesting things with your life.

  7. Jeff Cogswell said:

    Hi Bob, I think this sounds like horrible advice! If I’d settled for second best, I wouldn’t have gone that extra step to work with my agent to get work writing for the “For Dummies” series, or any of the other accomplishments on my resume. And now I’m venturing into the corporate training realm. Since I’m brand new to it and a no-name in the field, I need to remind myself that I’m the best around, if nothing more to give me the ambition to break into the field. If I felt I was just one in a thousand, then why even try to compete with those getting all the training jobs? Besides, the more I “do” the more I realize how much *more* potential I have, and that pushes me further to accomplish more. I feel most of us have far more potential than we’re doing, contrary to what this guy says.

  8. Bob Bly said:

    The problem is: if you HAVE to be best, only one person can actually BE best, and therefore your happiness depends on external factors: the success of other people. When you turn out not to be the best (the most likely outcome), you will be disappointed and maybe miserable.

    If you instead set the goal to be YOUR best, then your success depends only on internal factors — you — and you can achieve it and the happiness that goes with it.

  9. chris said:

    Have you ever heard someone finished second, third or even worse saying: “I’m really happy being not as good as #1” and actually meant it? Really?

  10. Rob Swanson said:

    There is wisdom in not “having to be number 1” in the sense of not just metrics but also in how wide you spread your net.

    Bob Bly, for instance, is not the best writer in the world. Within his niche, though, he has a good metric to say he’s toward the top if his income is higher than others in his niche. Further, I’ve read many of Bob’s books (if not all). They are extremely informative and probably more helpful than any other books on my shelves, but I wouldn’t call them scintilating prose. Yet if they were, they may well not be as informative and helpful. If he were driven to be the best of both, he probably wouldn’t be the best of either.

    “Potential” is also slippery. Right this second it could be argued that I am fulfilling my potential if I don’t have the ambition to be more; but the second I have the ambition I am indeed capable of more and therefore not living up to my potential.

    It’s probably a question of focus. If I drive myself to be the best for the sake of being best, and fulfilled potential for the sake of potential, I’m going to screw myself up. I do think it a bit new-agey to say “take the pressure off yourself and you’ll achieve more” but there is a kernel of truth.

  11. Bruce DeBoer said:

    Always strive to improven – individual best — but never use other’s failures to measure your success.

    I think this is basically what everyone else is saying.

    So … who said it best?

  12. Susan Weiner said:

    I like your comment #8. Makes sense to me!

  13. Ms. Kitty said:


    I believe that being number one at something, is relative, and fleeting.

    Relative in the sense that it only matters at the moment, when comparing to your self-establised baseline.

    Fleeting in that it does not last… There will always be somebody nipping at your heels hoping to overcome your success. And they will over time, depending on your baseline, right?

    So, what are we really talking about here?

    How we evaluate our own success? Perhaps…


  14. JHEP said:

    You know, Bob, I tend to agree with this guy.

    Not that one shouldn’t strive always to improve, both on one’s native skills, and by adding / developing new ones, but the end statement, about not linking personal success to others’ failures, is spot on.

    OK, now that I’m two weeks late responding, I’ll dovetail with Bruce’s comment and say I most agree with SpongeBob and BlyBob.

    It’s interesting to note the degree of competitiveness inherent in Jim’s, Steve’s, and Jeff’s posts.

    Seems to make the point, that while some are more naturally comfortable with overt competition, for the majority, a more invert competition is the ultimate focus, and may help to diffuse discomfort associated with the perception that there can be only one “winner.”

    Sounds like we’ve got at least two different markets here.


  15. Joel Heffner said:

    Everything is relative. Trying to be the best at anything is meaningless. As soon as the best is identified someone or something else pops up that is better. The real goal in life, in my opinion, is to try to be a tiny bit better each day. It adds up!

  16. Craig Hysell said:

    Is it entitled The Last Self Help Book You’ll Ever Need because we might as well go ahead and quit on whatever dreams we hold in regard and have yet to achieve? We’ll never need help if we don’t ever try to do anything for sure. Heck, why not just throw in the towel the whole way quit reading, stop learning and start figuring out a way to kill ourselves?

    What kind of advice is that? To give up on hope, to settle for mediocrity, to resist change, to accept- or even believe- that you have no choice as to where you stand in life… ? How can a writer, especially one who has penned a book, believe in such things? Has the author’s life been so uniquely blessed that everything he has ever achieved he has accomplished on his very first try?

    Half of success in life, I believe, is just showing up, the other side is continually beating on the doors we find closed to us. I accept that we all have limitations, they are the limits we set for ourselves.

    The author either has a very twisted sense of humor or just might be trying to weed out further competition in his life by convincing us all to accept that change and success-however defined- are predetermined for the lucky few.

    Ridiculous. Hard work makes it’s own luck and success should never be determined by anything more than what satisfies the individual’s soul without significant expense to others well beings. In my opinion…

  17. catherine said:

    O Commom Pearsall, your advices are just rubbish. You have to dream big, to achieve big. Always strive for the best and BE BEST.

    ” LOOK UP IN LIFE “, try to improve and do better everyday.

  18. Julius said:

    Listen up,

    Rather, since this is written and therefore it would be impossible to use your auditory senses to interpret what I’m about to say just read this carefully.

    The guy and his quote (I won’t even pay him the respect of writing his name or reproducing his words)are worth less to me and the rest of humanity than the vial faeces that he most probably has to muscle out of his constricted, toxic, wrotting colon on route towards his hemorrhoid infested rectum (regularity of this barbarity of a defecation: once every two weeks).

    Being the best at whatever it is that makes you get up in the morning is the only thing that matters in life.

    So ask yourself this question, are you the type of person who’s here to challenge me and fail anyway in your attempts to stop me from reaching ubiquitous supremacy or are you just going to let me have it and go on living your life enslaved to the ever popular mediocrity and self-delusional state of comfort?

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    I don’t think that it is necessary to be best at what you do. What matters the most is that be good at what you do and it should be complete and decent. But if you think you can be the best and number one, you should always go for it.
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